(Note: the below is an except from the book, Foundations – A Synthesis of Philosophy, Science, Spirituality, and Psychology, by RG Martin — me.)
We all have feelings of inferiority and we all strive for superiority (equality is only the first step). According to Alfred Adler, a famous psychoanalyst, this is a basic theme of psychology.
Because we are in political movements of racial equality, gender equality, and other demands of equality, these feelings of inferiority and the strife for superiority is in a social state of denial, and they are even demonized as “racist,” “sexist,” immoral, and even evil.
Thus, we may be seeing a significant aspect of reality as evil.
A theme of Adler’s thought is that we should accept our feelings of inferiority, and strive for superiority, in mentally healthy and socially contributory ways. This is opposed to striving for superiority in mentally unhealthy and socially destructive ways.
Alfred Adler and superiority
Scratch a person with a psychosis and you will find a superiority complex.
Alfred Adler was a psychoanalyst who created an anti-thesis to Freud’s school of thought. One of his main ideas was that, consciously or unconsciously, everyone has feelings of inferiority and strives to be superior. The mentally unhealthy person strives to achieve superiority by socially useless and socially destructive means, such as being the best drug dealer or being the most violent person in the neighborhood. The mentally healthy person strives to achieve superiority in socially useful and contributory ways, such as being the best social worker in a clinic, having the most education, or a making the best income.
We can see this same phenomenon of inferiority/superiority in the animal world. For example, male dogs know who the alpha male is, in terms of fighting ability, and female dogs also know who the alpha male is, in terms of giving her the best genes for her offspring.
Most people in the modern world have strong beliefs about each person being existentially equal and equal before the law. However, while accepting these beliefs, Adler contended that most people still strive for superiority in other ways besides this existential and legal equality.
Here are some of the criteria that people use to evaluate their level of superiority or inferiority in relation to others:
style of clothing,
quantity of knowledge,
quality of life,
size of one’s family (duplication of one’s genes), and
accomplishments of one’s children (“My son’s a doctor!”).
Although many people are in a state of denial about their feelings of inferiority and their striving for superiority, this striving is rampant in everyone’s daily life.
A new criterion for inferiority and superiority has recently reared its ugly head with the creation of Facebook. Now many people share (brag) about how much they are enjoying life. They do this with pictures, videos, and posts. Those people who aren’t experiencing fascinating trips, exciting parties, or big family reunions often feel inferior. They aren’t getting as much out of life as their “friends.” These feelings can lead to depression and existential envy.
Birds of a feather
Often attractive people associate with other attractive people and people of similar intellectual and educational levels hang around with each other. The choice of marriage partners is significantly influenced by superiority characteristics. People often want to marry someone “on their level” or above.
People of similar races, nationalities, and religions tend to associate with each other and marry each other. People of accomplishment tend to associate with other people of accomplishment. People with similar income levels tend to associate with each other. People of high moral character and spiritual maturity tend to associate with other people on the same level. People with the same education levels have each other as friends. Criminals tend to hang out with other criminals. Even in sports, for example in tennis, people often want to only play with someone on their level of skill or higher.
We can see the “birds of a feather” phenomenon clearly in both exclusive private social clubs and exclusive nightclubs. Private clubs often have strict financial and professional requirements. These requirements can be very helpful financially and professionally because of the exchange of information and the making of contacts. Exclusive nightclubs often have bouncers outside the doors to allow in only the “beautiful people” and the “hip people” and keep out the “unattractive,” “the old,” and “the square” people.
Different but equal
People often choose others with whom to have a relationship, whether it is a social friendship, a professional relationship, or romantic relationship, based not on the same equalities but on an equality of values other than their own. Here are some examples: a beautiful woman may marry an unattractive, wealthy man; a professional boxer may have a relationship with an intellectual; and a child with a good sense of humor from a poor family may have a friendship with a boring child from a wealthy family. In these relationships, we find a common existential fractal of a fairly equal trade-off of superior/inferior characteristics.
A comedian once looked out at his audience and said, I can look at the married women in this audience and tell you, generally, how much your husband makes.
At an exclusive country club, an 80-year-old multimillionaire came walking in with an attractive blond handing on his arm, eagerly listening to all his wisdom and joyfully laughing at his humor. A friend of his pulled him aside and asked him,
How did you land her?
I lied about my age.
What did you tell her, you were 50?
No, I said I was 96.
Children and superiority
One can see this phenomenon of superiority and inferiority even in children in grade school. The children know who are the best looking, the toughest, the coolest, the smartest, the funniest, and they tend to pal around with other children who are on their status level. Just as with the adult world, children often have a fairly equal give-and-take relationship. They want to receive as much as they give in a friendship.
In fact, some upper-class families fight tooth and nail to get their children into the best preschools, often at costs up to $40,000 a year, so that their children can pal around with “the best and the brightest.”
We can see different paths up the mountain of superiority, with overall superiority at the top. The individual can choose which path to pursue his superiority.
For example, a professional actor may choose the acting path and strive to be the best actor he can, even trying to win an Academy Award. But he might not be the least bit interested in his physical strength, whereas a bodybuilder may not care the least bit about acting. And both people may feel superior to each other, although they may also feel existentially equal to each other.
Superiority through contribution
As we have stated, Adler practiced a mode of therapy where Adler helped his clients resolve their feelings of inferiority and superiority by encouraging them to strive for superiority in socially useful and contributory ways, rather than socially useless, dysfunctional, and mentally unhealthy ways. As often happens in therapy, pursuing a client’s mental health is most effectively achieved by using the client’s self-interest.
Jesus kicks over the chessboard
As with many of his other ideas, Jesus kicked over the chessboard when it came to striving for superiority. He said, to be superior, one had to be the least among others. One could interpret this as meaning that to be spiritually superior, one had to choose the path of spiritual growth and go through one’s life affirming and serving others, not making others feel inferior in any way, and putting oneself on the bottom rung of the socioeconomic ladder. For example, some religious people take a vow of poverty and devote their lives to helping others.
But it’s still striving for superiority! Even Jesus claimed superiority. He said he came only to serve others, but he also still claimed to be the messiah predicted by the Jewish prophets. He still said, “All authority on heaven and Earth has been given to me” and “I have conquered the world.”
And Jesus did reach the top of the spirituality mountain. Virtually all spiritual leaders in history—of all religions—tip their hats to him and say that Jesus was an enlightened person (even though many of the same leaders distort his words). In a way, he has conquered the world.
“Search the earth, search the heavens, there is none like him.” Thus, who is his equal? Mohammed, Einstein, Napoleon, Marx, Richard Dawkins, Lincoln, John Kennedy, Pope John Paul II, Mother Theresa? Who has created a better interpretation of reality, or a better comprehensive philosophy (one that includes all of reality — especially spiritual reality).
Jesus also made the statement that John the Baptist was the greatest of all prophets, but that the least in his kingdom was greater than John. Thus, the least person in Jesus’ spiritual movement is still greater than all the prophets! We can see that the greediest billionaire and the most humble charity worker can be seen as both striving for superiority, but just different forms of superiority.
In the same way, in the Christian mythology of heaven the most spiritually developed people—that is, those who practiced virtue to a heroic degree—end up on the highest realms in paradise. And guess where many of those who were on the highest earthly social levels end up? According to Christian theology, the last shall be first. But the last are first (superior)!
Joel Olsteen and Joyce Meyer
We can see this “superiority” in Christian evangelists like Joel Olsteen and Joyce Mayer, two people who have dedicated their lives to serving others. But they still strive to have the biggest congregations, sell the most books, and become the most well known. They even strive to “save as many souls” as possible. And Olsteen and Meyer have ended up having what most people who dedicate their lives to secular superiority want: fame, meaning, money, good marriages, great kids, and social respect. “To be the greatest, you must be the least” often means you do end up being the greatest. Perhaps, in the end, the meek will inherit the Earth!
Inferiority and superiority in cultures
We can see this same theme of superiority/inferiority when looking at different cultures. In many Asian countries, especially China and Japan, there is a culture of humility and acceptance of authority and social superiority due largely to the—not historically disproven—tenets of Confucianism. But these same “humble” individuals often believe in their superiority to Western individuals because they perceive that the Confucian ethical standards are on a higher level than the ethical standards of the West.
Existential equality and superiority
This drive for superiority of getting to the top of a chosen path is a phenomena that is in a societal state of denial. Perhaps this is because of the confusion between existential equality—as expressed in “all men are created equal” in the Declaration of Independence—and the everyday phenomenon of social status.
Also, the civil rights movement, proclaiming the equality between the races, and the women’s liberation movement, proclaiming the equality between the sexes, make any mention of the competition for superiority taboo and almost illegal. Thus, the everyday striving for superiority is simply buried in the subconscious and communicated in actions without words, although the phenomenon is all around us. And it is serious.